Picture: GCIS
Picture: GCIS

It’s easy to get swallowed up in some of the inspiring stories of children who defied horrific odds to prevail in the matric exams. And it’s easy to get beguiled by an improvement in the pass mark of 78.2% of the 630,396 children who wrote the exams.

But as Mary Metcalfe, an associate professor of education at the University of Johannesburg, wrote this weekend, only about 60% of the 1-million children who started grade 1 in 2007 ended up writing those exams. Add in those who failed, and the reality is that "the celebrations are for no more than 46% of our children".

Nic Spaull, a senior researcher in Stellenbosch University’s economics department, has also flagged how government has made it easier to achieve a "university entrance" from the matric exams, which created a 12% jump in the number of children who qualify for university. This suggests a looming crunch for universities, which are already under pressure to provide free education.

"Enrolment increases of weaker students coupled with funding pressure and an election means higher education is probably headed for a rough few years," says Spaull.

In this context, it is to be welcomed that President Cyril Ramaphosa is preparing to radically overhaul the education system. According to the City Press newspaper, Ramaphosa plans to announce that every schoolchild will get a computer tablet, grade 1 to 3 pupils will get foundation-phase computer coding and robotics classes, and the entire curriculum will be digitised.

It’s welcome, but it’s hardly addressing the problem — that irrespective of how it looks, our schools are producing weaker graduates.

As Spaull points out, 61% of grade 5 learners could not do basic mathematics, according to the 2015 "Trends in International Mathematics & Science" study. Equally, the 2016 "Progress in International Reading Literacy" study found that 78% of grade 4 children in SA did not understand what they were reading. Already behind the world when it comes to unemployment and inequality, we’re lagging in education too.

The truth is, for Ramaphosa to really deal with this, he’d have to address the power of the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu).

Over the past 25 years, Sadtu has exerted a stranglehold on SA’s education system. A 2016 ministerial task team report, looking into the selling of teaching posts by trade unions, found that Sadtu had "captured" six of SA’s nine provinces.

Sadtu’s influence "often exceeds the regulatory bounds" in that it had a hand in appointing teachers, principals and officials, based on union loyalty, not merit. For example, the report found that 85% of senior education staff in the North West were "deployed" by Sadtu "after having served as union office bearers".

This, the report said, was due to a failure by the state to exert control over SA’s education system. So what you get is a revolving door of leadership: since 1994, there have been more than 80 education leaders in SA.

So, if Ramaphosa really wants to transform education, he has to do more than hand out iPads; he has to manage the influence of Sadtu, to ensure real accountability for shoddy teaching.

Sure, it won’t be easy since his support comes foremost from the unions. But the country cannot afford to have gerrymandering of the pass rate and university entrance numbers, so that politicians can pat themselves on the back. Instead, we need an improvement in the substance of teaching that creates a meaningfully better society — not just one that has the right appearance.

To do this, Ramaphosa has to confront Sadtu, and make it clear that they must see themselves as educators first and union members second.